Sex industry: Socialism or Censorship?

August 1, 2001


The crucial political question facing any inquiry into the erotica industry under capitalism is whether one places economic class or biological sex as the principal unit of analysis.

The article in Green Left Weekly #456 by Joyce Wu ("Labor Left in bed with the sex industry") is an excellent example of the theoretical and practical impoverishment of the latter school of thought. Wu is a recently converted disciple of the sexual sectarianism of Associate Professor Sheila Jeffreys, whom a collection of quotes from can be found on the url below.

Sexuality: natural or constructed?

The position supported by Wu and Jeffreys is that sexuality is a construction and that resistant sexualities are not an expression of preference or desire, but rather are political statements. Wu claims, in criticism of Dr Jim Cairns, that "biology itself is a human discourse which is not free from the influences of the socio-political context it arises in".

This absolute social constructionist argument is as dangerous and as extreme right-wing as its complement, the absolute biological determinist position. Fortunately, both positions when exposed to empirical tests and the reality of human agency are exposed in their irrationality.

As if it isn't already self-evident, sexual desire originates as a biological function, natural as breathing, eating, sleeping and excreting. The social constructionist line may try to place sexual desire in a different category to these other natural needs, the empirical evidence proves otherwise, not just through the science of pheromones but the evident sexual desires of those unfortunate individuals who have been raised outside of society (i.e., without "discourse").

Within the social context, and ontologically secondary, sexual behaviour is a largely learnt trait, although given a few months of fumbling and experimentation the higher social primates do eventually seem to find out what works and what doesn't (as if adolescents don't already know this).

The relation between desire and expression is mediated through the political and legal system, through cultural mores and prejudices and through individual agency. Any repression of behaviour based on informed consensus leads to social and individual pathologies, such as the suppression of legitimate sexualities (eg. gay and lesbian practise) and/or sexual violence.

The political danger of social constructionism is that it also commonly leads to cultural and political relativism in moral standards.

Is it possible to describe the cultural norms of the Trukese and the Lepcha as equivalent? The Trukese of the Carolines advocate sexual experimentation by children and build tiny huts outside their main compounds for such purpose. The men of the Lepcha from south-western Tibet and the Himalayas rape prepubescent girls with the pathology that they will not sexually mature without such an experience. In our opinion, these are not moral equivalents.

Erotica under capitalism

In many traditional societies it is possible to distinguish "pornography" (as commercial sexual media) from "eroticism" (as sacred offerings of sexual media). Of course, metaphysics has notorious slippage with objective reality and in many cases the two were conflated, such as the sacred prostitutes of the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth.

With the establishment of the modern secular state, this differentiation is no longer viable. All sexual media, indeed all art, is commodified and is therefore simultaneously erotica and pornography, hence the insightful comment that "erotica is pornography for the rich".

Left to its own dysfunctional principle of social organisation, capitalism can lead to a situation where women and men, due to — and only due to — their proletarian status (i.e., they own nothing but their own labour) are forced as a matter of sheer survival to sell their bodies in sexual servitude in whatever legal and illegal markets exist.

It is through this process of class analysis that the social sexual pathology of capitalism can be elucidated. In nations where capitalism is almost entirely left to its own, unregulated devices, sexual exploitation reaches levels of almost unbelievable inhumanity. Almost invariably in such states, most of whom operate with political systems closer to religious rather than secular societies (where men are the only legal owners of property), women are the overwhelming victims.

To give credit where credit is due, however, Jeffreys has done some admirable work and research fir the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women group regarding sex workers relevant to such nations. However the anti-erotica zeal by which this work is carried out has also been criticised by a unified statement of worker and health groups (visit <>).

The problem is that Jeffreys, Wu and their ilk lack the social theoretical rigour to differentiate between systematic procedures and structural effects.

Reference to structural effects of the class system is, of course, intrinsic to any feminist analysis of erotica: the overwhelming majority of the means of production are almost universally owned by men, the workers are almost universally female and the media is almost universally produced with an orientation for male consumption.

These gross distortions of economy and representation have led to Jeffreys and Wu to place sex above class in their analysis.

Erotica, in the misguided world of Wu is, "as the practice of patriarchy, which seeks to justify its status quo and domination through the construction of women as expendable object-commodities for the consumption of the male consumers", an absolutist definition without consideration of alternate arguments that denies the existence of same-sex erotica, which denies any agency or input of the working actors and denies that women and men are consumers.

Jeffreys, in comparison, simply admits "I am not sure what erotica is".

Against censorship

Whilst modern capitalism, with its birthright from traditional and feudal systems of political economy, includes male-dominated relations of production, this is a structural feature, not a systematic one.

To analyse erotica in the manner of Wu and Jeffreys proposes that the primary adversarial conflict in erotica is between women and men, rather than worker and capitalist.

Under such circumstances the only practical political solution is the total censorship of actual or implied sexual expression. This position is strongly advocated by Jeffreys who claims a political objective of "In a genuine social democracy in which women's interests were considered, pornography would not be available".

Such a policy however, is already in place among fundamentalist religious states across the world. Indeed, Jeffreys is enthusiastically referenced by Islam: The Choice of Thinking Women which along with Jeffreys' great desire for the abolition of sexual media, also advocates the abolition of abortion rights, opposition to cohabitation, opposition to divorce, and blames rape on the "free mixing between men and women".

The entire orientation is supported by the premodern claims: "The more human beings rely on their own intellectual reasoning and abandon the guidance of their Creator, the greater their suffering" and "when a man and a woman are alone together, the third one present will be the Shayran [Satan], working to implant mischief between the two".

Against this, and other disenfranchisements of the rights of women, the nations with the highest levels of freedom in sexual expression backed with adequate levels of social security have the lowest levels of sexual violence.

If this only occurred in one or two nations it could be written off as a freakish occurance. But it is a fact that it is historically universal across all cultures and times (eg, classical Hellenes, enlightenment France, 1920s China, contemporary Finno-Scandanavia).

Ultimately, in a free society, where the institutional form of family has been abolished, where the state has withered away and private property ceases to exist, there will be no sex industry.

Indeed, there will be no monied commodification of any human activity. There will be no division of labour. There will be no institutional, political or even structural difference in the social status between men and women.

Human beings will be genuinely free to hunt in the morning, debate in the evening, form consensual sexual liaisons at night, without ever having to be a hunter, a critic or a sex worker.

Whilst achieving such a society is indeed a practical question rather than an matter of ideals, its achievement will not occur by reactionary ideology and practise, but rather by workers taking control of the means of production — across all industries.

[This is an abridged and edited version of the original article. A full response is at: <>.]

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